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Possible candidates for the Presidential Election?

By Jason Lee

We have six more months to persuade that eligible candidate who could shape our political future over the next six years.

The mainstream media have over the past week carried commentaries on the upcoming Presidential Election.

Interestingly, the introductory paragraphs in both commentaries (in TODAY and The Straits Times) sought to remind Singaporeans that other than the upcoming general election (GE), there’s also the Presidential Election which must be held between June and August.

I do not know if the writers genuinely believe that Singaporeans would be as concerned over the winner of the Presidential Election (if there’s indeed a contest) as compared to the number of alternative candidates who would emerge victorious in the upcoming GE.

If anything, my observations over the past 12 years have taught me that the Presidential Election would not shape my future drastically. Some cynics of the Elected Presidency (EP) might tell me that the Head of State has always been a ceremonial post, and has never – since our independence – shaped or changed any policies which would impact Singaporeans.

I would disagree on that – if we take into account the period between September 1993 and August 1999 when the late President Ong Teng Cheong was in office.

Former President Ong Teng Cheong

Regardless of our political affiliation or views, I believe many Singaporeans would agree with me that President Ong’s term in office demonstrated that his “loyalty is, first and foremost, to the people of Singapore”, a statement he emphasised during the presidential campaign in August 1993. Logically, his actions and decisions during the six-year term should have set a precedent for future presidents to emulate and leave a mark on Singapore’s political arena – for the betterment of its citizens.

Sadly for me, the incumbent President’s style does not, in any way, seem similar to the late President Ong.

Nonetheless, with a high likelihood that we will have a new President come September 1, we are in a position to shape our political destiny, albeit indirectly via the EP.

Instead of simply expressing my desire to see a contest for the EP in August, I would focus this piece on six possible candidates.

But before I could compile the list of candidates, one question popped up in my mind: What qualities should the President possess? In order to answer the question, I must however understand the roles and duties of the President.

Aside from gracing events as the Guest-of-Honour, the common understanding among many Singaporeans is that the President has two key roles: One is to maintain Singapore’s diplomatic relations with other countries, and the other key responsibility is to protect the nation’s reserves.

Given that the President is likely to spend more time on the former (ie. to enhance Singapore’s status and reputation worldwide), I reckon someone who has experience and an in-depth understanding of the government’s workings – as was the case for the then-Deputy Prime Minister Ong Teng Cheong – would have an advantage in fulfilling the required responsibilities.

That said, this man should also have the conviction to reject the Government’s requests if he genuinely believes that it is the right decision for Singaporeans.

Who do we have then based on the criterion?

Former DPM Tony Tan

Based on my understanding and casual conversations with several Singaporeans, former DPM Tony Tan and former Cabinet Minister David Lim fit the bill. Both men are known to be independent-minded and are regarded as political technocrats who excel in policy-making, although some might argue that they seem to lack the “people’s touch” of former Presidents Wee Kim Wee and Ong Teng Cheong. However, both Dr Tan and Mr Lim have valuable experience helming large corporations such as OCBC Bank and Neptune Orient Lines respectively – a plus point considering that these are companies with global presence.

Another possible candidate with political experience is former Speaker-of-Parliament Tan Soo Khoon. Mr Tan, who moved to the backbench in 2002, had raised several issues close to the hearts of ordinary Singaporeans, including his “Seven Wonders of Singapore” speech where he took government agencies to task for spanking new premises with plush interiors. Mr Tan, who had then argued that theGovernment had no reason to increase the GST from 3 to 5 per cent, is still fondly remembered by many as one of the few backbenchers who would not hesitate to raise “sensitive” issues in Parliament.

Former Attorney-General Walter Woon might also be a popular choice among those who believe the President should be proactive and not someone who views the job as a desk-bound one. In July 2008, the then-AG personally appeared in court to appeal for a life term for a woman convicted of instigating her boyfriend to kill her husband. Back in 1995, Professor Woon, then a Nominated Member-of-Parliament, became the first lawmaker since independence to introduce a bill which subsequently became a public law in Singapore.

One name which is seldom raised – and yet belongs to someone whom I reckon has the experience and public persona to make a good President – is Mr Lim Chin Beng. Known for his humility, Mr Lim is a former member of the Public Service Commission and had also held key appointments at leading corporations such as CapitaLand, The Ascott Group, Changi Airport International, and Singapore Airlines.

DBS Chairman Koh Boon Hwee

Another well-respected veteran in the corporate world who might be considered for the EP is former DBS chairman Koh Boon Hwee, who had also chaired the boards of other GLCs including SingTel and Singapore Airlines. Mr Koh seems to relish challenges, having led SIA through the 911 terrorist attacks and SARS epidemic in 2003, as well as DBS during the 2008/09 financial crisis.

In August 2005, it was estimated that about 700 to 800 people were qualified to run for the presidency – an increase from earlier media estimates which put the number close to 400. Almost six years later, it should come as no surprise if the available pool of eligible candidates is further enlarged.

The question however arises: How many of these eligible candidates are prepared to throw their hat into the ring and challenge the ruling party’s endorsed candidate for the mandate to make a genuine difference to our lives?

Some of us would personally know one or two – or even more – eligible Singaporeans who qualify to contest in the Presidential Election. We have six more months to persuade that eligible candidate who could play a role – no matter how small or gradual the impact is – in shaping our political future over the next six years, and we should indeed do so given that the ruling party is unlikely to offer us an “alternative” this time, unlike the case 18 years ago.

On my part, I will try to ‘woo’ an eligible candidate whom I’ve known since 2002. Hopefully, he will eventually agree to offer us an alternative – and an excellent one, I should add – to the ruling party’s candidate in August.

The writer was a former journalist.